A Conversation with Noah Addis on Large Format Photography
It’s not every day that you come across a documentary photographer who travels the world with a 4×5 camera. But for Noah Addis‘s large-scale images of urban squatter communities, it was the natural choice.
Curious about how he came to that conclusion, we asked Noah to answer a few questions for us about why he works with large format photography, including what he finds to be the benefits (and drawbacks) of the art form.
Read on for his take on how working with a large format camera can influence the outcome of your work:
- What drew you to large format photography?
My first experience with large format photography was in college. I was forced to put down my 35mm Nikon and shoot 4×5 for a class. And it wasn’t even a field camera—I was dragging a big studio monorail camera around Philly. Of course I appreciated the slow working method and the incredibly high level of detail that the large film could reproduce, but a large and slow camera was not suitable for the work I was doing at the time.
A few years ago, however, I started a project about informal urban development in the world’s cities. I wanted to photograph the urban landscape in a more formal way and my goal was to make large prints with a lot of detail. I started the project on digital, but the digital cameras available at the time, the ones I could afford at least, were far inferior to film in terms of dynamic range and resolution in large prints. I switched to 6×7 medium format film, but when I found that I was mostly working with a tripod anyway, I decided that 4×5 would be best for the project mostly because it had the added advantage of camera movements. It was really just a case of using the right tool for the job.
- What do you consider the pros and cons of large format photography?
Large format film provides an incredible amount of resolution. Even with relatively inexpensive cameras and lenses, you can make very large prints that are very sharp and full of detail.
Large format cameras also allow movements, which are extremely beneficial when you shoot architectural scenes. The movements allow you to shift the lens instead of tilting the camera, so vertical lines remain vertical instead of converging and you can use tilts to change the plane of focus which helps get everything sharp within the frame. Of course these movements can also be used the opposite way, to introduce exaggerated perspectives and to throw things out of focus.
With large format you’re working with longer lenses…a 150mm is considered a ‘normal’ lens on 4×5. So the depth of field is very small. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your needs. It’s pretty common to work at f/22, so even in decent light you’re looking at long exposures. Again, this can be good or bad depending on what you’re doing. Interesting things can happen when you photograph a busy urban scene with a long exposure. But if you want to get everything sharp and freeze moments, it can be difficult or impossible.
One of the main disadvantages of film is the availability of film and processing. There aren’t as many emulsions as there used to be, especially for color. Processing can be a problem, as, in many cities, there are no professional labs left. I send my color film to New York for processing. Each sheet of color film costs about $8 for the film and processing, so film costs are significant for a large project. Of course, if you shoot black and white, then all you need is access to some basic equipment to process your own film.
It’s somewhat difficult to travel with large format film. Along with the large equipment, getting the film safely through airport security checkpoints can be a hassle.
Finally, if you plan to print digitally, you’ll need to scan your film. Getting the best possible scan means either paying for a drum scan, or operating your own drum scanner. Both options can be time-consuming and expensive. If you’re working within an all-analog workflow, then you don’t need to worry as much about having updated computer systems and software.
- How do these factors influence your work?
The equipment doesn’t have a huge influence on my final work. A large format camera can definitely be limiting and it can impose its will on a photographer. It forces you work in a slow, methodical way. But I made a conscious decision to work within these limitations, so they’re really self-imposed.
I do think that working within the limitations imposed by large-format helped me grow as a photographer, even when I’m shooting a smaller format or digital. Being limited to one or two frames for each subject is a great way to learn composition. I was never the kind of photographer who shot hundreds of frames of the same subject. But shooting with 4×5 taught me how to analyze a space and organize elements within the frame.
Since everything is completely manual and because you have so much control over every aspect of the photograph with a view camera, it’s also a great way to learn photographic technique. This knowledge helps even when you’re shooting smaller formats.
It’s also a lot of fun to shoot with large format cameras, because it’s more of a tactile experience. But in the end, it’s the photographs that matter.
Noah Addis is a documentary photographer currently based in Columbus, Ohio. His work has been published in numerous publications including The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, People, US News & World Report and Life’s Year in Pictures. He has been awarded fellowships from the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, the Independence Foundation and the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in public collections including The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. His current work focuses on informal settlements and unplanned development in the world’s major metropolitan areas.
Are you interested in learning more about large format photography? Noah will be teaching Introduction to Large Format Photography here at Project Basho on May 17th & 18th! No experience or equipment is necessary; we’ll provide everything you need to learn the basics of working with a 4×5 camera!